Writing & Talking about the History of Fashion

Dark Age, Space Age & What Lies Between

Overcast days and short gloomy evenings signal the onset of autumn and winter, but the meteorological palette of muted greys and dull browns excites me, for it provides the perfect contrast to the crimsons, yellows, oranges and deep greens of seasonal produce. I have spent the past few weekends reacquainting myself with favourite autumnal recipes, chiefly from Nigel Slater and Yotam Ottolenghi, that include figs, aubergine and sweet potato. The taste of the roasted or raw fruit and vegetables is as delicious as their appearance, especially when they are all bundled together in a basket. The bold, earthy colours of my ‘five-a-day’ mirror those that I like to wear at this time of year.

A recent trip to Anderson & Sheppard’s newly opened ready-to-wear shop along Clifford Street, which has a wide selection of clothes in seasonally suitable colours, was a delight, although on leaving – obviously, with a bag full of treats – I reflected on the unfortunate fact that many people – men particularly – do not have much tonal or textual variation in their daily wardrobes.

The relative absence of colour from contemporary clothing, which typically consists of shades of just one or two colours per outfit, was brought home to me when a friend asked what the wedding dress of the wife of Bath, perhaps the most well-known character from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, would have looked like. There were no hard and set rules for fourteenth-century wedding get-up, but I could be sure of one thing: the colour of the bride’s dress was probably not white. Pale colours for the wedding gown were not uncommon at the time, for these symbolised the bride’s chastity and purity, but far more popular was blue, a colour associated with the virtue of loyalty and the Virgin Mary, and red, a colour that represented faith. The prospect of a blue or red wedding gown, or a dress that incorporated both of these colours, would probably be anathema to many brides and their wedding guests today.

Gowns of white were ubiquitous during London Fashion Week’s showcase of next season’s collections and featured prominently in presentations by Tom Ford, Whistles and the appropriately named Mother of Pearl. Whilst I hope the interest in relatively insipid colours proves to be a passing fancy, there are reasons to believe that it will endure. A monotone palette of shiny whites and metallic greys has long been presented as the colour of modernity and progress in magazines and on film. According to a report in today’s Guardian by journalist Jess Cartner-Morley, London Fashion Week’s understated and ‘normal’ clothes indicates that showing off has been trumped by sartorial sobriety. A similar conclusion was made by Esquire reporter, Johnny Davis, in a discussion about Carlo Brandelli’s return to Savile Row.

This made me ponder: Is the loss of colour in our clothing another sad consequence of technological advancement and cultural impoverishment? Has the decline of interpersonal connections – a symptom of what sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has termed Liquid Modernity, where uncertainty and unease have come to replace certainty and confidence – made us forget the value and meaning of colour? Do we shy away from colour for fear of making too strident a personal statement in a society that often seems to value consensus over creativity? My short response to these questions would, regrettably, be ‘yes’.

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